By Rich Feldenberg
This year Carl Sagan Day is being celebrated Saturday, November 14th. Sagan, who was born on November 9th, 1934 has been an inspiration to generations of scientists and science enthusiasts. Unfortunately, he passed away on December 20th, 1996 at the age of 62. Way too young, and certainly way too soon for a world that desperately needed his carefully measured dose of rationality, skepticism, and his poetic style of revealing the awe of the cosmos we inhabit together.
There are many great and inspiring Sagan quotes, or Saganisms as they’ve come to be known, but one of my favorites is, “If you want to make and apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. The meaning, of course, gets one to think deeper about where the origin for all the things we take for granted actually came from. The ingredients for an apple pie may include things like apples, flour, sugar, eggs, salt, etc. But where to these ingredients come from? To get these ingredients you must first invent a universe with laws like our own, that can lead to the formation of galaxies full of stars, which can fuse hydrogen atoms into heavier elements, which can then form planets. Some of these planets must have conditions that allow life to arise, which can evolve into things like apple trees and chickens (for the apples and eggs respectively) and for the evolution of intelligent beings that can put them together to make an apple pie. Some of the ingredients, like the salt (NaCl) and water (H2O), are relatively easy to produce, and just require the hundreds of millions of years necessary for stars to produce the heavy elements oxygen, sodium, and chloride (the hydrogen for the water was produced in the Big Bang itself). The other ingredients require billions of years in the making, for life forms and their evolution to take place. How brilliant and wonderful and simple a statement to make. Many people around the globe, that continue to honor and remember Carl make it a tradition to eat a slice of apple pie on Carl Sagan day. I know I plan to have a piece this year!
Sagan was an Astronomer, and one of the first astrobiologists. He was involved in important scientific research on the atmospheric composition of Venus and Mars. He played a major role in the Viking mission to Mars and the Voyager probes to the outer solar system. And, of course, he made communicating scientific findings to the public, and demonstrating the importance of the scientific process, a priority.
When I was growing up, the book Cosmos and the mini-series, by the same name, came out. Both were inspiring, thought provoking, and in some ways life altering, and Sagan tackled everything from Astronomy, evolution, the brain, and the importance of being skeptical of pseudoscientific claims. He had a mesmerizing way of delivering his message with intelligence and passion. The TV series was recently redone by Astrophysicist and science communicator, Neil Degrasse Tyson, who didn’t attempt to remake the original episodes, but who did an excellent job of continuing on where Sagan left off.
Sagan also wrote quite a few other excellent books. These included, “The Dragons of Eden”, “Broca’s Brain”, “The Demon Haunted World”, and “Billions and Billions”. These books really fueled my scientific curiosity growing up, as I’m sure they have done for many others who grew up to love science. After all these years, his books are still worth reading, if you haven’t done so already. He also wrote the science fiction novel, “Contact” that was made into a motion picture in 1997 with actress Jodie Foster. In the novel he attempted to show what first contact with an advanced alien species might be like.
I did have the opportunity to see Carl Sagan in person on one occasion. At the time I was a chemistry major in the mid-1980s at The University of Missouri – St. Louis. Sagan came to deliver a lecture to our university on the dangers of nuclear war and the importance of nuclear disarmament. He was a great dynamic speaker and the lecture hall was completely full. I think, at the time I was hoping he was going to talk about astronomy, but in retrospect I now understand the importance of his social concerns for our future and continued existence.
Sagan also introduced me to the concept of scientific skepticism, at a relatively early age. He was critical of how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience (something now called the demarcation problem). He showed us that there are no beliefs that should be immune to skeptical inquiry, including religious belief. He came up with the “Baloney Detection Kit” that everyone should have in their skeptical toolbox.
Carl passed away right when the first exoplanets were just being discovered. Now we know of more than 1000 planets that circle other stars. We have made a much more thorough exploration of Mars and the moons of the outer solar system. We have strong evidence for liquid water deep under the crust of the moons Europa, Enceladus, and Ganymede. There is liquid methane on Saturn’s moon Titan. These discoveries make the possibility for life in our outer solar system a little more likely, and for life outside of our solar system very likely, by the sheer number of planets in our galaxy alone. At the same time the skeptical movement has gained momentum and is going strong. We have learned more about cognitive psychology and our innate biases and predisposition towards distortions of memory and perception. Flaws we must recognize in ourselves if we are to take the first steps to learn to become a more rational species and rise out of our superstitious past. I believe Carl would find all this fascinating and exciting. We could really use Carl’s wisdom now, but at the very least we still have him with us in the form of his writing and video.
Happy Carl Sagan Day. Have some Apple Pie and be sure to learn something new today!
References and other items of interest:
1. Carl Sagan Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan
2. Article detailing the “Baloney Detection Kit”: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/03/baloney-detection-kit-carl-sagan/
3. Trailer for the movie “Contact” based on the book by Carl Sagan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl7Xe80_0MY
4. The Demarkation Problem on the Rationally Speaking Blog.
Also check out the excellent “Rationally Speaking” podcast. The current host is Julie Galef, and excellent skeptic and teacher of all things rational! The previous host was Massimo Piglucci and scientist and philosopher and all around brilliant guy. Well worth checking out!
5. The Rationally Speaking Podcast with Julia Galef: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org
6. Some great Julia Galef youtube videos on rationality: https://www.youtube.com/user/measureofdoubt
7. Massimo Piglucci’s homepage: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/massimo-central/
8. My contemplations on the possibility of what it would take for life to evolve on Titan: